Pigeon slippers

By Robert Ralley and Lauren Kassell

The Casebooks Project, a team of scholars at the University of Cambridge, has spent a decade studying 80,000 consultations recorded by the seventeenth-century astrologer-physicians Simon Forman and Richard Napier. To mark the completion of our work, we selected 500 cases for full transcription. When the launch was announced on 16 May 2019, it received considerable media attention. Headlines included ‘Prescribing deer dung and pigeon slippers’ (BBC news), ‘Purges, angels and “pigeon slippers”’ (The Guardian), and ‘“Kisse myne arse”: Doctor’s notes reveal bizarre medical notes from 400 years ago’ (c/net).

Fig. 1: Richard Napier’s CASE51060, MS Ashmole 414, f. 76r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

When Mrs Elizabeth Chester, suffering from hot, red eyes, consulted Richard Napier, the Anglican rector and astrologer, in June 1620, his remedy included ‘a pigon slitt & applyed to the sole of each foote’ (see Fig. 1). Applying freshly killed pigeons to the feet or other parts was not one of Napier’s standard treatments, but we have spotted references to it in around 30 cases. More instances await discovery amidst the 70,000 consultations that Napier recorded between 1597 and 1634. Roughly half record treatments. Often unhelpfully shortened to ‘pig’ – whence remarks such as the cryptic-looking ‘pig to the feete’ – this remedy appears often enough for Joanne Edge, one of the Casebooks Project’s editors, to dub it ‘pigeon slippers’.

We don’t know whether Napier read about the use of pigeons in a medical book or learned it from another healer. It’s not amongst the treatments, as far as we can tell, that he learned from his mentor, Simon Forman. Napier first recommended slit pigeons, twice, in March 1607 (see here and Fig. 2; and here), and occasionally thereafter for the rest of his career.

Fig. 2: Richard Napier’s CASE30882, MS Ashmole 193, f. 113r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Pigeons were common in early modern Europe. People kept and ate them, their broths were fortifying, and distillations made from them were good for the skin. English medical texts, typically translated from earlier Latin and vernacular editions, regularly referred to blood drawn from under their wings to help with eye troubles. From antiquity, pigeon dung featured in plasters and drinks for numerous remedies. Galen, the great second-century physician, had recommended the application of freshly-killed pigeons, puppies and ram lungs to the head. Medieval medical treatises and recipe collections perpetuated the practice, especially for cases of frenzy. Physicians trained at Montpellier applied pigeons to the chest to comfort the heart. Sixteenth-century books of secrets recommended pigeons—either freshly killed or live with their tail feathers plucked—to draw foul matter out of plague buboes. Napier duly noted, ‘apply halfe a pigeon new slitte to the outsyde of the sore’.

Medieval texts often recommended rubbing the feet, and other extremities, with salt, vinegar and wine, but so far the earliest reference we’ve found to ‘A quick Pidgeon cut in two, and bound to the soles of the feet’ is by Felix Platter, the distinguished Basel physician, in his extensive 1614 medical book.[1] Used with other remedies, pigeons to the feet helped ensure a speedy recovery. By 1638, the Hull physician James Primerose noted that ancient and modern writers advised applying pigeons to the head in diseases of the brain, but, to his knowledge, this was rarely done in practice. Rather, ‘the common people’ and ‘very many physicians’ instead applied pigeons to the feet.[2] Napier’s casebooks attest to this. He usually recommended slit pigeons to the feet for problems of the head or throat, whether a swollen face (see Fig. 3), hot, running or sore eyes (see Fig. 4), or even a bad cough. A handful of cases concern the mind, from what Napier called ‘lightheadedness’ (not dizziness), via melancholy, up to frenzy. Occasionally he chose the neck instead or both neck and feet. He always combined pigeons with other therapeutics (various internal medicines, ointments, clysters, blisters and bloodletting, for instance). When in 1632 the vicar of Westmill, Hertfordshire reported to him that a parishioner had been treated for frenzy with pigeons to her feet and a slit cock all over her head, Napier replied suggesting a sigil and a list of medicines.

Fig. 3: Richard Napier’s CASE23369, MS Ashmole 238, f. 212v. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

In seventeenth-century England, pigeon slippers seem to have become standard in the medical repertoire. John Hall, the physician from Stratford-upon-Avon who married Shakespeare’s daughter, recorded that when he suffered from a ‘light Delirium’ caused by a dangerous fever in 1632, the cure included ‘a Pigeon cut open alive, and applied to my feet to draw down the Vapours’.[3] Theodore de Mayerne and fellow royal physicians applied a pigeon to the head of the ailing Prince Henry in 1612, and a slit cock to his feet, without success.[4] Samuel Pepys, in his famous diary, recorded the treatment’s use when patients’ lives were in danger: in October 1663 he noted that Catherine of Braganza ‘was so ill as to be shaved and pidgeons put to her feet, and to have the extreme unction given her by the priests’; in January 1667/8 he visited the house of a man whose ‘breath rattled in his throate, and they did lay pigeons to his feete while I was in the house, and all despair of him, and with good reason’. There is no sign that Napier regarded the treatment as a last resort.

Fig. 4: Richard Napier’s CASE23227, MS Ashmole 238, f. 190r. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

For learned physicians and laypeople alike, pigeon slippers worked through attraction. Just as Hall explained that they had ‘draw[n] down the Vapours’, so in 1604, Napier noted that William Godfrey, who suffered from bloodshot eyes and a hot rheum, had ‘applyed a pigeon slitte to his necke which drew the rheume thither & eased’. In May 1600 Napier recorded that Mother Gale had decided that a boy’s burning shoulders, aching back and swollen knees were because he was forspoken (bewitched), and treated him by putting ‘a cock pigion slit to his … face’ and throwing his nail parings in a fire. Perhaps her rationale was to remove some sort of poison, as when slit pigeons were applied to plague sores. Primerose considered and dismissed the possibility that the pigeons’ gentle heat on a patient’s feet could affect the head and its humours at all. ‘Nevertheless’, he wrote, ‘I doe not absolutely speake against the applying them to the soles of the feet, because it may doe a little good, and cannot doe hurt.’[5]

[1] Platerus golden practice of physick fully and plainly discovering, trans. Nicholas Culpeper, 1664, Bk 2, Ch. 2, Of fevers.

[2] James Primerose, Popular Errours, trans. Robert Wittie (London, 1651), p. 397.

[3] John Hall, Select observations on English bodies of eminent persons in desperate diseases (transl. James Cook, 1679), OBSERV. LX.

[4] Hugh Trevor-Roper, Europe’s Physician (2006), p. 172.

[5] James Primerose, Popular Errours, transl. Robert Wittie (London, 1651), p. 400.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.